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Conversion Rate Optimization: Scent Trail or Primrose Path?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Web Marketing Today. Practical Ecommerce acquired Web Marketing Today in 2012. In 2016, we merged the two sites, leaving Practical Ecommerce as the successor.

Conversion rate optimization is the practice of managing pay-per-click ads, landing pages, and websites to increase sales, leads, or other desired actions from visitors.

The key to success comes in using techniques that lead visitors down an information “scent trail,” not unlike that of a hunting dog following the scent of its prey. If the scent is sufficiently strong, visitors will continue down the path. If it is weak, they will start over until they find what they’re looking for.

The Scent Trail and Web Design

Think about how and why you use the web. Chances are it’s when you’re looking for something specific. And when looking for that particular something, which sites do you engage with most often? Likely, it’s those that load quickly, are well designed, and that make the path to the information you’re seeking readily accessible.

Typically, people that use search engines are task-oriented. They aren’t “surfers” so much as they are on a mission. If your site facilitates that search, providing answers to questions and the information people seek, your chances of improving conversions increase. If not, access to millions of other sites is just a mouse click away.

It’s in your best interest to design an experience for site visitors that makes an impression consistent with the messages that brought them there — one that directs them to where they want to go and that creates a navigation structure that helps them accomplish their task efficiently.

The design must be visually appealing, have consistent marketing messages, use an intuitive navigational structure, and contain clear access to search, contact information, and FAQs.

Email Marketing Message Leads Down Primrose Path

When using email marketing, the subject line and body copy should share similarities. If the message includes a link that sends readers to a landing page — and aren’t all web pages landing pages? — the information contained there should be consistent with the content of the email and lead them further down the path.

The subject line gets their attention, the email message generates interest, and the landing page provides more information and a call to action. That’s how it is supposed to work, at least.

The problem is that, rather than leading people down the scent trail, messages often take them down a “primrose path” — i.e., a journey that ends in frustration. Such was the case with an email I received from Cox Communications some time ago.

The subject line said, “Enter to win a trip to Scotland from Cox!” I’ve always wanted to visit Scotland, and if I could do it on Cox’s dime, that would be fine with me.

This email message from Cox Communications promised one thing in the subject line and delivered another in the message.

This email message from Cox Communications promised one thing in the subject line and delivered another in the message.

To my unpleasant surprise, the email itself contained nothing about the trip but focused instead on Cox’s on-demand movies. When I clicked the link associated with the message, I was taken to a landing page that also said nothing about the trip.

Cox's landing page said nothing about the contest for a trip to Scotland.

Cox’s landing page said nothing about the contest for a trip to Scotland.

Cox had piqued my interest with an offer to enter the contest in the hopes of winning a trip but delivered a self-serving message: Watch our movies.

One Example among Many

This incident is as an example of a poor marketing practice that I’ve seen repeated time and again, most often in the case of pay-per-click ads that appear on search engines.

Click the link associated with the ad and you expect to be taken to a page that provides more information and that, ideally, contains the same keywords used in the search. Instead, you end up on the home page of the advertiser’s website. The scent trail disappears, leaving you to continue the search or, likely, abandon it and look elsewhere.

A casual Google search proves my point.

I recently searched for “best Valentine’s gifts.” One result, from Zales, included the search term in the ad. But clicking the link took me to Zales’s “View All Jewelry” page.

Zales Valentine's Day PPC ad

Zales Valentine’s Day ad used keywords I searched for.

Zales's landing page said nothing about Valentine's Day.

Zales’s landing page said nothing about Valentine’s Day.

A message said “Hundreds of Gifts She’ll Love,” which hinted at the notion of Valentine’s Day, but weakened the scent trail in that it failed to include the search term or a direct reference to the holiday. So, I repeated my search, clicking on an ad from another retailer, this time meeting with success.

While the ad, shown below, did not use my search phrase exactly, it did include the term “Valentine’s Day,” which was enough to merit a click.

Things Remembered Valentine's Day ad.

Things Remembered Valentine’s Day ad.

Upon arriving at the landing page, I saw the words “Valentine’s Day” used repeatedly.

Things Remembered's landing page kept me on the scent trail.

Things Remembered’s landing page kept me on the scent trail.

Don’t Make People Think

Steve Krug's book, "Don't Make Me Think!"

Steve Krug’s book, “Don’t Make Me Think.”

Steve Krug, in his seminal book on web usability, “Don’t Make Me Think,” published in 2000, said that web designers and marketers should make sure that a person of average ability or experience can use [a thing] for its intended purpose, without getting hopelessly frustrated.

“[A]s far as is humanly possible, when I look at a web page it should be self-evident,” Krug said. “I should be able to ‘get it’ — what it is and how to use it — without expending any effort thinking about it.”

The goal of conversion rate optimization is to ensure that Krug’s instruction is always the case. When promoting a product or service using pay-per-click ads, email marketing, landing pages, or another conversion tactic, don’t make your visitors have to figure things out. Make the action you want them to take obvious and remove any obstruction to achieving the goal.

That means keeping the message consistent between the ad or email and the landing page, using the same (or similar) keywords. When possible, create a page specifically tied to the promotion. And whatever you do, don’t send the person to a page that has nothing to do with what you’re promoting!

If you keep the visitor on the scent trail, not a primrose path, you’re likely to see conversion rates increase.

Paul Chaney
Paul Chaney
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